Be Your Own Birder

Weekly Bird: Prothonotary Warbler

If you ever need a bit of brightness in your day, look no further than the prothonotary warbler with its brilliant, almost florescent yellow plumage. But there is much more to this bright warbler than just its sunny plumage!

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler – Photo by Dan Pancamo

Prothonotary Warbler Fun Facts
  • The prothonotary warbler (Protonotaria citrea) is a member of the Parulidae bird family, which includes other colorful New World warblers such as the American redstart, ovenbird, blackburnian warbler, palm warbler, and Cape May warbler,
  • Legend has it that this warbler was named for the bright yellow robes of different religious lawyers, clerks, and court officials (protonotaries), but there actually isn’t a lot of definitive, recorded proof about how the name came to be or what it is related to.
  • In addition to prothonotary warbler, these birds are also called swamp warblers because their preferred habitat is wet, murky swamps, wetlands, mangrove swamps, southern bogs, and similar habitats. Another name is the golden swamp warbler, for both plumage and habitat.
  • The prothonotary warbler is one of only two northern warbler species to nest in cavities and bird houses (the other is the Lucy’s warbler). These birds often use old woodpecker or chickadee nesting cavities to make their homes.
  • Male prothonotary warblers build several starter nests in their territory for females to investigate, and may occasionally stay overnight at one of their bachelor pads. When a female chooses her mate, she will select the nest site she prefers and will complete the nest construction.
  • During the breeding season, both males and females can be very aggressive. They will snap their bills at intruders, chase off other birds, and even have air battles where they lock talons with opponents.
  • Flegling prothonotary warblers have been seen swimming soon after leaving the nest, a valuable adaptation for the watery habitats they live in.
  • Though these birds are residents in eastern areas, regular vagrants have been reported far west of their expected range, including in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and other western states. A prothonotary warbler has even been recorded in French Polynesia, far out in the southern Pacific Ocean!
  • While the prothonotary warbler is not considered endangered or threatened overall, they are at risk from habitat loss, particularly in their winter range, and are considered endangered in Canada, the very northernmost extent of their breeding range.
Add the Prothonotary Warbler to Your Life List

Despite their bright plumage, these birds can be difficult to spot because they prefer to stay in relatively dense, understory cover in swampy areas or alongside rivers. Late spring and early summer is the best time to find prothonotary warblers when males are defending territory and working to attract mates, when they will often perch high to sing. Visit the appropriate habitat – marshes, swamps, and heavily forested rivers – and watch for that bright glint of flitting yellow to spot them. Francis Beidler Forest, an Audubon wildlife sanctuary in South Carolina, is home to the densest breeding population of prothonotary warblers, making it a prime hotspot for birders who want to see this species. Birders who are fortunate to live in the proper habitat, preferably close to a swampy area or wooded river, could put up a bird house to tempt prothonotary warblers. Birders should also pay attention to rare or vagrant sightings, since these birds do have a tendency to wander far outside their typical range.

Learn More About the Prothonotary Warbler

Want to learn even more about these bright birds? These resources can help…

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler – Photo by Dan Pancamo

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